Determined Neymar and PSG leave us wanting more

The Brazilian superstar was in mesmerising form, showing the qualities that may embody what Paris Saint-Germain may be all about from now on.

For all of Neymar’s theatrics and ridiculed “rolling down the river” impressions, this was the sort of performance that made you realise something – this guy is actually really good.

Here, not only did Neymar create and take responsibility on the ball, he hustled and harried off it, tracking back and helping – yes, helping – in the elements of the game that he ideally doesn’t like to involve himself in, showing an opposite side to his flair that we didn’t think existed. He was kicked here and there, but that won’t matter to him – it’s all part of the Neymar Show, a world class mixture of the good and the bad that has him, no matter what people may think of his willy-nilly antics, close to the very top of the football pyramid. To suggest otherwise would be sinful.

Yes, he can be frustrating to watch sometimes when he becomes disconnected from the football, like a boy disobeying his father. Yet he also has a knack of leaving you wanting more and more – more nutmegs and faints; more bursts of pace and slaloming runs; just… more. 

The Jordan-donning Parisien fashionistas, strutting their stuff on the Parc des Princes green carpet in what was a statement of intent against last year’s finalists, began as they mean to go on, a refreshingly dominant performance that shied away from the “inept” or “typical” PSG we’ve come to be accustomed to. 

And there must’ve been something in the chilly Paris air that consumed the entirety of everyone associated with the Paris Saint-Germain brigade in their 2-1 win, because from the first whistle right down to the last, Neymar and PSG were up for this in ways that Liverpool simply couldn’t match.

Liverpool were red in the face, Virgil van Dijk wasn’t looking so world class anymore – that mantle fell to the hysterical Thiago Silva – and the midfield three were being taught a lesson by Marco Verratti – tenacious and driven, the sort of quality that sets the high tempo in games like this, all calm and controlled. He was the only recognisable central midfielder in the PSG team, yet he outclassed Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner for most of the game. 

His driving run led to PSG’s opener in the 13th minute, scored by left back Juan Bernat with a swing of his right foot, a well deserved lead in an opening half full of attitude and desire.

Then came that devilish front three break in the 36th minute, a swift give and go between Kylian Mbappe and Neymar leading a Nike-sponsored counter attack, featuring Mbappe’s lightning stride and Neymar’s perfect weight of pass. Edinson Cavani missed the initial chance, but Neymar was there to save the day, his 31st Champions League goal, the highest for a Brazilian. 

What may have also been impressive about this victory was that Cavani didn’t have to do much, if anything, before he was taken off in the 65th minute – such was the buccaneering attitude of Thomas Tuchel’s men, almost glued onto the idea that this was an opportunity to stand tall and be noticed. 

Not to say that Cavani wasn’t involved – he was much more effective in his link-up play with Neymar and Mbappe compared to Liverpool’s ghost front three – but it showed how good PSG were as an overall unit, the whole more effective than just the sum of their parts. It was all so fun to watch, you’d forgotten about the recent nonsense about super leagues and dubious Middle East investment. There was even time for rainbow flicks in the corner, just the way Neymar likes it. 

PS: although Neymar may hog the limelight, credit must fall onto Silva and Marquinhos’ shoulders for a defensive showing of great interest and motivation. They wanted to defend, their heart and soul encapsulated in every celebratory moment when Liverpool simply couldn’t get through. Magnifique.

Jurgen Klopp, however, wouldn’t have liked this one bit. It was a match that showed him where Henderson and Milner are when it comes to the best central midfielders in the world, and the ineffective abilities of Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah should be a cause for concern for a team that isn’t in transition anymore, and were a side piece to the real show for much of the night.Gone are the days of lovely hugs and giddy relationships with the press: Klopp is under pressure to deliver. He would give away an arm and a leg and a Dejan Lovren for as fluid a trio as his German counterpart has. That home tie against Napoli was always going to be an important element of this group, but now the stakes are much higher.

And for all of Neymar’s frustrating roll-arounds and tumble downs from the World Cup et. al, this was a very good example of what PSG can do when the right notes are hit. Maybe Tuchel is the kick in the back side that he needed, the realisation that for him to bag those elusive individual accolades, Ballon d’or and all, he will have to give in to the team collective and make peace with his individuality.

Because with Tuchel, Neymar defends; Bernat scores; Silva and Marquinhos bump chests like Brazilian tag team wrestling champions. If Tuchel can produce this more often, then expect PSG to push their Champions League campaign further than they’ve ever done before.


PSG, Ligue 1 and their European conundrum

The Parisiens continue to dominate their league and may qualify for the Round of 16 in the Champions League, but will we ever fall in love with the idea of them being crowned European champions?

Another convincing win. Another Neymar-led performance. Another day where Patrick Vieira, like most before him, may start to wonder if Ligue 1 is either a stroll in the park or Paris Saint-Germain are just an extremely good team.

After their 3-0 victory against OGC Nice at the Allianz Riviera, Thomas Tuchel’s men now sit eight points clear of second-placed Lille, unblemished after eight matches, with a goal difference of +21.

PSG always seem to coast through their league. They can only play what is put in front of them, but even they must be starting to think that it has become a little embarrassing: show up, play, dominate, outscore, repeat. It all seems too easy, especially when their closest rivals in the past few seasons, AS Monaco, change the composition of their team so often, and are now closer to relegation than having any credible title challenge.

The “PSG Project” has been a domestic success so far. The first stage was to ensure the dominance of their domestic league, which can have a bright, luminous green tick next to it on the to-do list after winning five titles in the last six years, the anomaly coming in that rip-roaring of a season when Monaco dared to dream and toppled the Parisien monopoly. The next stage, naturally, would be to build a team that can challenge on the continental front, tussling with the bigwigs, nudging ever closer to having the famous shot of the team name being engraved into the trophy with the big ears.

Alas, PSG continue to falter when you start to believe that they may have turned the corner. Their underwhelming performances in the Champions League against the top tier sides have been well documented, the loss to Liverpool at Anfield the latest entry to the catalogue. Inept, disastrous, naive – these are some of the words that have been used to describe a team that, by now, should be eating on the same plate as the kings of Europe. Their failings have been attributed to the lack of high-level competition in their league as complacency sets in, the idea that they are a threat to the current European hierarchy being exactly that: just an idea.

The good news, Tuchel would like to tell himself, is that this particular hurdle in their first game came early on. In some way, the hope is that the naivety, the lack of a coherent dynamic, fluid transition from defense to attack and vice versa, will evaporate as they continue to find ways to make everything work in their favour.  There were times when Thiago Silva would look perplexed as to why Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson were being given so much space to do what they pleased.

Such space was not afforded to Manchester City in their game with Lyon, once a dominant figure in France, and PSG could take a leaf out of their book when it comes to the application and discipline needed to challenge proper opposition, especially away from home. It is that lack of work ethic and attention to defensive detail that makes it hard to love this team.

The appointment of Tuchel was an interesting one. Never has he had to manage the calibre of egos that are found in this group of players, and with his all-energy, all-demanding managerial approach, how can he entice his more flamboyant players to do the dirty, gritty work? Could you imagine Tuchel instructing Neymar to track his runner and contribute to the defensive side of the team’s structure? “Where is this written in my contract?”, he would ask himself as Tuchel waves his arms in the air, emphasising a point that may have gone over one of Neymar’s signature haircuts.

PSG can be a very exciting team to watch when they are in the mood. When it all comes together, when all the parts are working in a symphony reminiscent of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, or Tchaikovsky’s Pas de Deux, it looks brilliantNeymar’s lazy runs and twinkling Nike feet from the left, Thomas Meunier’s overlapping adventures from right back, Kylian Mbappe’s drop of the shoulder, Cavani’s tireless work rate from the front. It can all be very overwhelming sometimes. Bayern Munich felt it last season, but the problem is that they struggle to replicate that rugged, sometimes ugly away performance often needed to topple more elite opponents.

The Champions League has long been dominated by a select few of Europe’s top clubs. To break the chain of command would be a welcome move away from the standard teams that grace the latter stages year in, year out. Think back to FC Porto in 2004, if you can. Or Inter Milan in 2010. Those were the rare occasions where a Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid, or Barcelona were not the talk of the town but, for once, we could celebrate an unfamiliar name on the trophy.

With PSG, it all seems a bit self-centred. Imagine the scenes if PSG were to win the Champions League, the trophy hoisted above Silva’s smiling face, Tuchel on the side quietly clapping while Nasser Al-Khelaifi beams with a sense of relief, Presnel Kimpembe posting update upon update on his Instagram story with the trophy being haphazardly held in one hand, the famous front three posing for the cameras in a “we may not really get along, but we made it work” sort of way, and the Parisien ultras deep in song and intoxicated beyond belief. They may revel in such successes, but the rest of the football fraternity may feel discontent, and to them, justifiably so: PSG come across as an expensively assembled group of individuals that are more concerned about their marketing endeavours than becoming actual Champions League contenders. It is hard to let your emotional guard down: “How can I trust that you will love me the same way?”

As we enter another Champions League week, PSG host Red Star Belgrade in a match that will most likely follow the same script as many of their encounters in Ligue 1. These will not be the tests that they will be judged on, but it will be important to set a tone for the ones that will matter. Under the microscope, under the scrutiny of the cynic that believes the project is more self-indulgent than anything else, PSG need to deliver a continental showing that will cast away the doubts that all the investing and big spending was not just for brand recognition.

PSG and the French Ligue 1 Renaissance

Paris is a city which oozes elegance. A city with enough fine wine to get the whole world drunk. A city that counts itself amongst the world leaders in fashion and now also finds itself at the forefront of world football.

By Danny Wyn Griffith

When asked about great European cities, Paris might spring to the forefront of your mind. This is a city which oozes elegance with architecture that resembles an outdoor museum. Think of a city with enough fine wine to get the whole world drunk. A city that counts itself amongst the world leaders in fashion and now also finds itself on the front line of world football. Paris Saint-Germain have gone from Ligue 1 underperformers to European football tyrants in the space of a decade. They now bully where once they were bullied, and this has caused the rest of the league to up their game and turned the French domestic scene into quite the spectacle.

PSG have spent like no other side in Ligue 1 history this summer, and the pressure is firmly on Unai Emery to bounce back from an average first season in charge. Monaco are reigning champions, but are much-changed compared to the outfit that romped to success last term and their chances might depend on keeping Radamel Falcao clear of any fitness issues. Olympique Lyonnais go about their business in a quieter sense nowadays and their chances hinge on how they react to losing talisman, Alexandre Lacazette. Olympique Marseille now have a player in Dimitri Payet and owner in Frank McCourt that is edging towards the boisterous level demanded by their renowned fans. OGC Nice were impressive in their third placed finish last term and Lucien Favre’s men will hope to continue along the recent upward curve. It’s hard to forget Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille – despite sitting in the relegation zone seven games in – who will undoubtedly provide excitement at various points during the season, whether on the pitch, touchline or during the post-match press conference. And lastly, former Leicester City miracle-man, Claudio Ranieri, finds himself with the unenviable task of leading Nantes to glory.

PSG’s spending spree and rapid rise would never have been possible were it not for some very deep pockets. Qatar Sports Investments – established in 2005 by son of the Emir and heir to the Qatari throne, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani – bought a 70% stake in the club on 30 June 2011. From that point onwards they’ve been on a fast-track to the pinnacle of European football having been led to four straight Ligue 1 titles firstly by Carlo Ancceloti, and then Laurent Blanc, as manager along with Zlatan Ibrahimovic as talisman. Their rise caused various calls of foul play and the term ‘financial doping’ is regularly associated with the team – and rightly so, although that story remains for another day. However, the noise recently reached peak volume as they paid Barcelona the princely world record sum of €222m for their Brazilian superstar, Neymar Jr.

Controversy has never been far behind Neymar. Known to be highly influenced by his father, Neymar Sr, and agent, Wagner Ribeiro, his previous move from Santos to Barcelona ended up costing double the originally reported fee of €57m. A €40m signing on fee was even included in the deal – a crucial term his father is known to have demanded. You can only imagine the eye-watering figures behind this summer’s record-breaking transfer. It surely surpasses €222m.

The world record price is only half the story. The way PSG and Neymar’s entourage went about the transfer was like no other. As if pinching Neymar from Catalonia with calls of financial doping left in their trail wasn’t enough, they decided to rub Barcelona’s noses in it. One of European football’s elite had been ruffled, and PSG and Neymar made sure everyone knew about.

Nevertheless, no matter what your cost and what talent you might possess, the importance of gelling with your new teammates cannot be underplayed. First flutters of potential settling-in issues appeared as PSG faced Lyon. On two different occasions commotion commenced between Neymar and Edinson Cavani over set piece duties. How this plays out over the course of the season will be an interesting sub-plot to the Ligue 1 journey.

Neymar’s new side finished in second place during the 2016/17 Ligue 1, with PSG losing out to a vibrant Monaco side who were deservedly praised for their performances at domestic and European level. Yet, you attract attention by showcasing your best talent to such a wide-casting audience.

Leonardo Jardim’s side have since gone on to lose key players throughout their first XI and the youthful outfit which attracted such adulation has since been ripped apart. Benjamin Mendy (£50m) and Bernardo Silva (£45m) left for Manchester City, whilst Tiemoué Bakayoko (£36m) filled the void left by Nemanja Matić at Chelsea. Worse was yet on the horizon with last season’s breakthrough star, Kylian Mbappé, highly courted throughout the summer by rivals PSG, Real Madrid and Manchester City. And to compound matters, Monaco finally succumbed to PSG’s wild wooing of their prodigious talent on the eve of the transfer window’s closure. The agreement is for an initial loan period with an option to buy next summer, with PSG seemingly weary of overstepping UEFA’s financial fair play line – although, it’s plainly apparent the mark was crossed long before this transfer.

Paris-born Mbappé’s move back home was the icing on the cake for what was a highly inflated market following the world record Neymar move. Ever since Paul Pogba moved from Juventus to Manchester United for £90m in the summer window of 2016, the market has gone off on a tandem and there’s seemingly no stopping it. Where once people called Pogba’s transfer fee outrageous, he currently seems reasonably cheap when compared with the fees conjured up for Danny Drinkwater (£35m from Leicester City to Chelsea), Kyle Walker (£50m from Tottenham to Manchester City) and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (£40m from Arsenal to Liverpool).

We must bear in mind, however, that Monaco – like so many others – are also the subject of foreign ownership with Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev at the helm – although he did take a £390m hit during a divorce battle in 2015. His team made shrewd acquisitions during the summer to fill the voids left by their high profile departures. They moved quickly to snap up playmaker Youri Tielemans (£22.5m) from Anderlecht, Dutch defender Terence Kongolo (£13.5m) from Feyenoord and young forward Adama Diakhaby (£9m) from Stade Rennais.

Seven games into the Ligue 1 season; PSG and Monaco are separated by the point alone. Both occupy first and second place, picking up where they left off last season. Yet, one imagines that this may just be a false dawn. To keep pace with this powerful PSG side over the remainder of the season, Monaco – or any other Ligue 1 competitor that might rise to the occasion – will need inspiration like no other. Whether the wise old head of Radamel Falcao, the teen prodigy of Youri Tielemans and the tactical nous of Leonardo Jardim will be enough to give Monaco this inspiration remains to be seen.

One thing is surely for certain; Ligue 1 is in for a ride like it has never experienced before.

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